The Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills is a famous location for photographers. I’ve been here many times and no matter what time of day it is the place is crowded with professionals and amateurs alike. This photo was taken just as the morning light hit the arch. We were camped about half a mile from it and when I woke up I grabbed my camera and ran over to the arch for morning shots. It’s fun to find angles to frame Sierra peaks through the arch. This shot is the classic view of Mount Whitney through the Mobius Arch.
With several weekends of beautiful summer-like weather already behind us, we headed across (the often still closed at this time of year) Tioga Pass on the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend. The snow has been melting fast but there was concern about a storm forecast for the Friday and Saturday – Sierra visitors were being warned of the potential for significant snow and winds. We were less concerned since we were heading two mountain ranges to the east, the Silver Range in Nevada. While the storm would most likely also hit us, according to forecasts it would be in the form of “30% chance of isolated thundershowers, with a snow level of 7800 ft (no accumulation expected)”.
Camping in the desert and hiking peaks with some cooler temperatures and refreshing rain? This sounded fine to me. When we pulled into our secret late night crash campsite along 120 the wind was howling but the skies were beautiful and clear. We snuggled up in the truck bed, toasted a beer, then fell asleep with the wind rocking the truck.
In the morning the sun was still shining and the wind was still blowing – the storm was still working its way inland. We planned on meeting up with our friends midday at our campsite in the Silver Range so we took our time exploring some rock hounding areas and picking up obsidian, agate, jasper, and apache tears. Around midday we stopped for a soak in Fish Lake Valley hot spring, enjoying the warm weather, calm breeze, and sunny skies. From here it was only about half an hour to our campsite through a gorgeous colorful desert canyon.
We arrived at camp and said hi to friends, and within a few minutes the wind kicked up again. The storm was still blowing in and we could see storm clouds off to the west. If they reached us they might drop some rain, but it was still pretty warm out. At least it was for a few minutes. Within about half an hour the temperature had plummeted and we went from shorts and tshirts to fleeces and hats. Half and hour later we saw some light snow flurries in the air. “Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to stick”, we kept repeating from the forecast we had all read.
By sunset the snow was starting to accumulate. There wasn’t much we could do besides stand around the fire to keep warm, and eventually we all just bailed to our tents and vehicles to get out the wind and snow. We were sleeping in the back of the Tundra, closing the gate and the lid like in the picture above (thankfully I’m not claustrophobic). But we learned something about our lid – you can’t get the corners latched properly from the inside (when you close it from outside you have to kind of push on each corner). We didn’t really realize it when we went to bed, but as the night went on the wind pushed snow through the gap.
When I woke up some time before sunrise I realized my sleeping bag was coated in snow. Snow was piled up around me, and as I had rolled around I had melted it and it had soaked in through the bottom of the bag. The side of my body that I was sleeping on was actually wet inside the sleeping bag. The snow on top of the bag had melted some but I still had some loft – luckily, in my I-am-always-cold paranoia I had brought along zero degree bag despite the forecasts for nighttime temps in the mid 30s.
As soon as it started to get light out we decided to make a run for the cab of the truck. When we popped the lid we were greeted by what looked like about a foot of fresh snow, with drifts even higher. Inside the cab we blasted the heater to dry off and warm up. It was 5 am, and for the next two hours we would make runs to pack up and coordinate with the group in between jumping in the truck to warm up. The snow was still coming down and I was concerned about the depth as I watched a drift reach the height of the hood of our Tundra.
Eventually we headed out, and once we pulled out of the campsite area we realized the snow wasn’t as bad as we thought. It was maybe 6-8 inches deep along the road and the cars (everyone in some kind of truck or SUV) did fine getting out. We reconvened down in Fish Lake Valley and decided to head south – weather forecasts showed that the precip was staying north of Independence, so our new destination would be the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine (and in the shadow of Mt Whitney).
On our way south we stopped to hike Chocolate Peak, a desert summit in the Piper Mountain wilderness. It ended up being a perfect consolation prize for the afternoon; an easy hike, great views of the clearing storms, along our new route, and just the right amount of time. Soon I’ll be writing a post specifically about this hike. We ended the day under clear warm skies in the Alabama Hills, our campsite location at the site of the Gunga Din bridge (the Alabama Hills are a very popular place for movie sets).
The storm had not come this far south so the high country was still dry. Instead of our original desert peak bagging plans, we headed up to Horseshoe Meadow trailhead at 10k and hiked Trailmaster Peak, an over 12k summit just north of Cottonwood Pass. It felt so, so good to get out and do my first Sierra peak of the season. I was actually happy our original plans didn’t work out! Like Chocolate, I’ll be doing a post on this hike since it’s a great introduction to cross-country peak bagging in the Sierra.
This was one of those trips where I’m very thankful to have friends who have their @#$% together and are smart and flexible enough to make new plans. No matter what, I know I’m going to have a good time when I’m with this group. Thanks guys!
I’ve only recently finished posting my photos from our annual Thanksgiving trip to Death Valley. It’s kind of fun going all the way back to November to relive this trip, always my favorite of the year!
Part 1: Alabama Hills, Andrews Peak, Papoose Flat, Hidden Dunes and Eureka Valley
We hit the road on Friday night after work and drove to our typical late night camp just north of Ridgecrest where we met up with Antony. On Saturday morning we took our time on the Eastern Sierra 395 corridor, visiting some of our typical and favorite places like the Alabama Hills Cafe and Wilson’s Sports in Bishop. In the early afternoon we headed east out of Big Pine towards Death Valley, turning off on a side dirt road into the Inyos where we got to engage 4WD and start exploring some new terrain.
A few miles in we turned off on an overgrown faded track and followed it partially up the side of Andrews Peak until a downed tree blocked our way. We left the cars and kept hiking up the road. I glanced at the map and misread the topo, so what I thought was a ~600 ft climb was really 1000. Sorry guys.
After the short hike up Andrews Peak to catch the view towards Waucoba and Squaw we continued back on the main dirt track through a rocky canyon and up some steep switchbacks over a ridge. It was a beautiful drive that never really challenged the truck but was still a lot of fun.
From the top of the ridge we followed the winding track along the crest of the Inyos until we started to drop into a Valley. At this point I knew why friends had recommended this spot to me. As you descend into Papoose Flat a beautiful rocky landscape appears. Piles of rocks similar to those in Joshua Tree combined with the high (very high) desert scrub brush made for some amazing scenery. We drove around and found a stunning campsite behind a pile of rocks with a view of the Sierra. The only negative part: it was so, so cold. Overnight it got into the single digits. That’s what happens at 8800 ft in late November, even in the desert.
Due to the view of the east Sierra I was looking forward to photographing sunrise the next morning, but I awoke to some clouds rolling in over the high peaks. As they got closer small flakes of snow started to fly. We quickly packed up and after a brief tour of the Flat headed back down to the main road into Eureka Valley.
Our destination for the next night was Eurkea Dunes, but not before being diverted to Hidden Dunes for the day. The Hidden Dunes are a remarkable long set of sand dunes that are tucked behind a mountain range, just out of the line of sight from the roads and approaches into the area. A very faint side road leads across the flat Eureka Valley to a dead end where you can park and start the three mile trek to the dunes. You approach them via a notch in the mountain range, and the flat hike across the desert is easy and has a lot of interesting rocks and tracks underfoot.
The storms that had been coming in over the Sierra that morning caught up with us and we finished the hike under low clouds, dark skies, and a light drizzle. Still, it didn’t prevent us from having a fun night camped near Eureka Dunes where we grilled steaks and drank good beer around the campfire pit until many hours after dark.
Photos with trip report from Hidden Dunes (38 Photos)
This year’s long summer Sierra trip was a return to an area I sped through when I hiked the middle stretch of the John Muir Trail in 2006. At that time we came over Pinchot Pass, camped at Lake Marjorie, and then hike through Upper Basin and over Mather Pass the next day. I felt a bit rushed through Upper Basin, mainly because we were trying to outrun a horde of mosquitoes. But it still remained one of my favorite scenic stretches of the JMT and I was looking forward to a day where I could go back and explore.
That day came this summer. Sooz and I planned a nine day outing that would take us over Taboose Pass and down the old John Muir Trail to Cartridge Pass, eventually leading into Lake Basin where we would explore, fish, climb some peaks, and enjoy some Sierra solitude. Depending on the time we spent there we also tried to wedge in a couple of days to do Arrow Peak from Bench Lake and Split Mountain from Upper Basin. With this year’s late snow melt we went in with a flexible itinerary and the ability to change it around depending on how fast we moved and conditions we encountered. It turns out that this was a good plan – snow kept us from getting into Lake Basin and we were able to change plans mid-week.
On the night of Friday, August 5 the three of us (me, Sooz, and David) met up at a pullout campsite in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We arrived after dark and as we drove north through Olancha and eventually Lone Pine all we smelled was smoke from a fire to the east and I was worried about how it would affect our trip. Our permit needed to be picked up on Saturday morning when the visitor’s center opened at 8, and we discovered that the Alabama Hills cafe opened at 7. We were there when they unlocked the doors. Because this is what you need sitting in your stomach when you’re about to climb 6000 ft to a pass.
After a relatively painless permit pick-up (pulled #6 from the lottery and were out in 20 mins) we headed north to the Taboose Pass Trailhead. This pass is in between Independence and Big Pine and is kind of a rite of passage for any Sierra backpacker. I was feeling a bit left out, never having done it before. I’ve heard horror stories of this pass told around many a campfire, and I just needed to experience it for myself. Here’s what I knew: it starts low, at 5500 ft in the desert conditions of Owen’s Valley. It is an interminable climb up ankle-twisting rocks where there is no shade and very few places to camp. It is a 6000 foot climb to the Pass which is desolate and windy. Sounds lovely. What I learned: yes, it starts low and hot. Yes, there is little shade. But the views are great, there are lovely places to take breaks and soak the feet, there are few campsites but we found a nice one just below the pass, and the grade of the climb was perfect enough to keep chugging along. I really enjoyed it far more than I expected. I’d do it again.
So, we finally got on the trail about 10 am in the mid-morning heat. Most people recommend starting very early but we simply weren’t able to since we had to pick up a permit in Lone Pine at 8. Just when the heat was starting to get to me we reached the first water crossing at 8000 ft. It was frigid and shaded so we spent a while cooling down. After that the ecology turns more High Sierra and less desert and I started to feel ‘at home’.
We climbed to about 10,500 ft, camping at the last campsite I knew of below the pass, tucked away behind some trees and a bit off trail. A steady breeze was blowing so we had no mosquito issues. Unfortunately the smoke we had smelled the previous night had put a damper on things and the whole day had been a bit hazy. It made for a nice sunset glow, however. 5000 ft of climbing in a little over six miles was definitely good enough for the first day and we zonked out early.
The next morning we packed up to clear un-smokey skies and we finished the climb to Taboose. Along the way we spied lots of sheep poop but never any bighorns. We did see several grouse (or mountain chickens, as I like to call them) and a few marmots. There were more snow fields as we climbed higher but never enough to lose the trail. At the pass we ended up crossing paths with Laura, our favorite Mountain Moose. She was heading out after a few days of playing in the mountains and it was great to chat and get some beta from her.
It was an easy hike along trail from the Pass to Bench Lake and we arrived there around 2:30 pm. After a bit of searching we chose a campsite on a small rise on the north side of the lake. It was slightly breezy which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately as the day went on the breeze died and the mosquitoes came out in force. Still, it was a gorgeous spot with incredible views. David caught us some brown trout for dinner and we went to bed happy, dreaming about tomorrow’s hike of Arrow Peak.
I spent a few days around Christmas playing in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. The rock formations here are really fun to scramble around and you can see all kinds of shapes and characters in the angles.
Click for larger.
Or, where the heck have I been?
I didn’t fall off a mountain somewhere. I’ve been out having fun and being generally too overwhelmed (in a good way) to keep up with my latest trips here on Calipidder, but I hope to remedy that shortly. I’ll be posting a few hike descriptions from our Thanksgiving and Christmas trips, mostly desert peaks but some other fun stuff thrown in as well.
The first half of our Thanksgiving trip was a bit of a weather adventure, driving across the Sierra on the front end of the big storm that closed Tioga Pass for the season. After nearly getting snowed in along highway 120 between Lee Vining and Benton, we headed into the Nevada desert and explored an area called “The Sump”, a fossilized swamp with lots of petrified wood and fantastic colorful formations. We also visited a similar area called Monte Cristo’s castle, soon to be Nevada’s next state park.
We kind of spinned our wheels the first couple days with the snow, but we got our trail legs a couple of days into the trip with a quick hike of Bullfrog Peak just west of Beatty, NV. We followed it up the next day with Anniversary Peak and Narrows in Lake Mead NRA. This was a terrific hike with lots to offer – look for the details soon.
On the Wednesday we headed into Panamint Valley to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with friends at the foot of the Argus Range. We did some fun 4×4 in our new truck (Tundra Rock Warrior), climbed several peaks, explored some really cool old mines, and played on the Panamint Dunes. As always, a great trip. And details on the hikes coming soon.
Christmas was a few days outside of Lone Pine where we snowshoed at the foot of Mt Whitney, photographed the Alabama Hills, and then went into an area called Cactus Flats to climb a really fun peak, do some 4×4, and visit some pictographs.
So, that’s where I’ve been. I’m not sure if things will ever slow down but I hope to catch up with trail reports here before heading off to the Outdoor Retailer Show in a few weeks!
I hope everyone had as fantastic of a holiday break as I was lucky enough to experience!
For the first seven years I lived in California I always flew back to Michigan to visit my family at Christmas. Each year I would inevitably face midwest snowstorms, holiday travel crowds, cancelled flights, etc. But it was always worth it to visit my family.
Last year was the first year I skipped the holiday travel – the overwhelming aggravation of it, combined with ticket prices that were 3x the previous year’s cost made me switch my family visit to summer, and it was a great decision. I sure do miss the Christmas traditions, but trading it for less annoying travel and time on the beach in the summer is a compromise I’m willing to make. So I made the same decision this year.
Since we don’t have any family out here, we found ourselves with a second year of a non-committed Christmas. And what do we do when we find a free day in our calendar? We hit the road, of course. At the last minute we decided to spend the holiday in our favorite place in the world – in a tent in the Eastern Sierra.